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Taiwan Fails to Learn From Its Own History

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By Thor Halvorssen and Alex Gladstein

TAIPEI, Taiwan -- The leader of China's ethnic Uyghur minority, Rebiya Kadeer, was recently banned from entering Taiwan for three years. Kadeer, a human rights advocate and spokesperson for millions of China's repressed Uyghurs, had been invited by a Taiwanese arts organization to attend screenings of The 10 Conditions of Love, a documentary about her life story.

Taiwan's Kuomintang (KMT) government claimed its rejection of Kadeer was "based on security needs." Ostensibly, the KMT was pressured by the Communist Party in Beijing. The party has long tried to delegitimize Kadeer's campaign to expose the severe human rights violations that China commits against its ethnic Uyghurs. Chinese authorities have called Kadeer a "terrorist"--a term they frequently use to describe human rights advocates.

Such capitulation coming from Taiwanese leadership is disappointing. Their country is home to a remarkably free society with vibrant media, a strong civil society, and the rule of law. It has gone through a remarkable transition from autocracy to democracy. And given its shared culture and proximity, it is the brightest beacon for communicating progressive ideas to mainland China. Sad, then, that the KMT would send a disheartening signal to human rights activists by banning Ms. Kadeer.

Historically, the KMT governed with martial law under strongman Chiang Kai-shek. For 60 years it presided autocratically over the Republic of China, which was driven from China's mainland to Taiwan. At times its crackdown on dissent was so brutal that its predations became known as the "White Terror."

But over the last 25 years, the KMT opened up dramatically by building rule of law and allowing free elections. In 1986, Taiwan's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was formed by an outspoken group of Chiang Kai-shek's critics, many of whom were former political prisoners. In 2000, for the first time in the Republic of China's 90-year history, this opposition came to power.

The DPP twice won the presidency and ruled until 2008. Its eight years in power were highlighted by unprecedented rhetoric and action on human rights--and new heights in cross-strait tensions. Today the KMT is back in power, led by President Ma Ying-jeou.

The primary debate between the two parties is over the relationship Taiwan should have with mainland China.

The DPP wants complete independence from China. It is highly critical of China's Communist Party, speaking out against Chinese human rights abuses and the thousands of Chinese missiles pointed at Taiwan.

The KMT takes a diametrically opposite position, wanting to thaw a long-frozen diplomatic relationship with Beijing. It shares a status quo "one China, two governments" outlook with the Communist Party. President Ma is only able to interact with Chinese officials under the pretense of being the leader of just another Chinese party, rather than the leader of another country. Mockingly, they refuse to use the term "president" and instead refer to him as "Mr. Ma." The KMT, once engaged in a civil war with Mao Zedong, now sells figurines of the communist leader in Taipei's Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall.

In seeking rapprochement and a better business relationship with Beijing, the KMT has been willing to remain silent about Chinese human rights abuses. In a speech last summer, President Ma praised the Communist Party for its human rights "improvements."

The KMT's recent behavior toward human rights defenders shows it has de-prioritized human rights. President Ma has cut off relations with some activists, rebuffing prominent Tiananmen Square protest leader Wang Dan last May. He also refused to meet the Dalai Lama on the spiritual leader's visit to the island last fall, and now his administration has forbid Kadeer from visiting.

The Uyghur leader explained to us that "it is unfortunate to see that KMT policy is increasingly mirroring Chinese policy on human rights. Under the Ma administration, all Chinese officials can freely travel to Taiwan. However, His Holiness the Dalai Lama was snubbed and I am prohibited from going there to attend a film screening."

The KMT can argue that by mending cross-strait relations and increasing Taiwanese interaction with mainland China, they will have a positive impact on human rights in China by forcing Beijing to liberalize.

But the true driver of KMT policy is mercantilism. China is a gigantic market for Taiwanese business, and better relations will undoubtedly create more wealth in Taiwan.

Kadeer warns that "downplaying human rights issues in pursuit of economic interests with the Chinese government is a mistake. At a time when the Ma administration is warming up to Beijing, the Communist Party is in the process of increasing the number of missiles targeting Taiwan to nearly 2,000 by the end of the year."

She believes, and it seems the case to us, that the DPP is "definitely more progressive on human rights issues."

Surprising, then, that we were invited to Taiwan not by the DPP but by the KMT's Ministry of Foreign Affairs to discuss the idea of building a human rights gathering in Taipei. The Taiwan Freedom Forum would be akin to the conference we organize in Norway each year that allows human rights defenders to share experiences and strategize. Our speakers are not known for pulling any punches--Kadeer gave this year's keynote address.

As soon as the MFA realized that our programming was openly critical of the Chinese government, however, their interest disappeared. Over the course of an hour-long lunch in Taipei with the head of the foreign ministry's NGO unit, we often talked human rights but the diplomat did not once raise the issue of China. In any other country this omission would not be too strange--but in Taiwan, where everything is seen through the lens of China, the silence was deafening.

Our MFA handler told us that the KMT "would not continue any discussion of a Freedom Forum," and that if we persisted we would be "troublemakers."

In response, we arranged to meet DPP officials and independent journalists who were more interested in hearing about our work. An hour after we visited the DPP's headquarters, the handler who had escorted us everywhere and taken notes on everything we said suddenly evaporated. Initially having been assigned to us for our entire stay, he had been "reassigned."

We met some whose agenda wasn't merely to ignore human rights, but to attack them. Our organization presented at Taipei's 6th East Asia NGO Forum, attended and endorsed by President Ma. Here we met a Belgian who leads an NGO regionally focused on aiding the handicapped. He told the audience that concern for human rights and democracy in China was "neo-colonialist" and was disrespectful to Chinese "customs."

In the same way other dictators around the world try to defend their rule, Chinese government officials argue that Chinese culture has special values, where elections and individual rights are unimportant.

The fact that Taiwan exists as an open democracy exposes this deceit. If the Taiwanese speak louder about their own experience and continue to compare their free society with China's, they can help dispel this myth altogether.

The Ma administration might turn its back on human rights because of narrow realpolitik, but it shouldn't discourage or prevent Taiwanese civil society from promoting these values by interacting with global activists such as Ms. Kadeer. It's thanks to human rights, after all, that Taiwan is as free, as open, and as prosperous as it is.

Thor Halvorssen is president of the Human Rights Foundation and founder of the Oslo Freedom Forum. Alex Gladstein is its vice president of strategy.

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